This week I was itching with chickenpox (yes, some leave it till later in life). It meant that my studies slowed down… and that the couple of journeys I made were – to say the least – interesting. Every now and again, seeing a new perspective is a good thing. Admittedly, cycling when under the weather was an informative and transformative experience. We, UK cycle advocates, should perhaps do it more often. Even just as a theoretical experiment it’s a useful exercise.
Pootling along my usual 2-mile route into town I could not help but notice the difference in experience. I had lost my cycling sixth sense, it seemed. My third eye wasn’t working. The 360 vision had gone. It was my usual route so I knew where to look, check and be careful of drivers ‘doing their thing’. Yet my low energy forbade me to perform all these otherwise usual tasks. I could not string them together into the routine dance of gracefully anticipating danger, magically diffusing conflict and averting confrontation and staying safe – simultaneously scanning the short (uneven surface) as well as the long distance (oncoming traffic). My head was spinning. My legs less so.
I could not perform to my normal level. I tried by ‘taking the foot off the pedal’ and slowed down. But the performance pressures, albeit different ones, were still there. There were two options it appeared. Go fast and rely on special skills, or go slow and deal with ‘fast road’ pressures by shrugging them off. Both approaches rely on managing conflict; both were out of the question. I resisted the temptation to bail out completely and hop onto the pavement.
My concentration levels had plummeted and I was feeling weak and exhausted by the whole experience, both mentally and physically. The situation that our road system had subjected me to was no exception – it had made it worse. We have created a transport system where the fit and the brave are free to cycle, when – hand on heart – the majority of the population isn’t like that. Inclusivity was questioned at every stretch of the route, its roads and junctions, along the way.
Yes, cycling should be easy, comfortable and convenient, they say. Yet truth is, an intensely high operability level is needed with above-average physical and cognitive abilities.
In the UK, when we are cycling, whether we like it or know it, we are sticking up for cycling. It’s a tremendous show of outsider-ship and social norm rebellion, reformation of realities, as well as learnt skillsets and hard-earnt knowledge. And that can feel exhilarating. Under the weather and deprived of most of these special combat tactics I was however longing for clearer delineation of rules, space and time. I yearned for my own space that I could cycle on in my own time, not ‘driven’ by motorised road rules.
With my tired head and legs, it was so much harder than usual to hold my space, assert myself and ride confidently. The failure of a system that relies on conflict between cyclists’ battle tactics and drivers’ interpretation of these as aggression was only too plain to see. Imagine you are someone who is cycling with kids and there are additional responsibilities. How must the older generation feel? Or parents when faced with the decision to let their kids cycle? How fit mobility aids into this equation? The road system we have built in our cities is not inclusive, kind or benign – it’s exclusive and cruelly unsympathetic to the needs of the majority.
There is a serious lesson in here. Relying on these special survival skills and techniques will only get you that far recruiting pedal participants. Advocacy should put itself into their shoes more often. Listen. And learn. Paint the reality of others. Then campaign for their needs to be fulfilled.